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Pima County slashes road construction staff

With Pima County dialing back work with the failure of road bonds at the polls in November, the county is laying off 36 workers from the Department of Transportation.

The department had already eliminated 16 vacant positions last summer.

The workers being laid off include a public works division manager, civil engineering positions, surveyors, office staff and materials testing staffers. In the units affected — Materials Evaluation, Project Delivery and Survey — just 15 employees will be kept on, an internal county memo shows.

Voters' 2-1 rejection of the proposed road repair bond package "results in staffing levels exceeding projected future workload needs," the memo said.

The layoffs should save about $3.5 to $4 million next year, officials said. The current staff budget for the entire county Department of Transportation is $17.7 million.

All of the positions being cut are in the roadway construction project area, Pima Transportation Director Ana Olivares said. No vacant positions are being eliminated in this round of cuts.

"This is a stressful time for all our employees," Olivares said. "This was a difficult but necessary decision and we have to be good stewards of public funds. It's always a terrible and sad day when you have to let employees go through no fault of their own."

The county has completed most of the work associated with previous road bond and RTA-funded projects, officials said.

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The staff being laid off were informed Wednesday, with the layoffs effective March 11, Olivares said.

The county is scaling back staff because of the "reduction of roadway construction projects related to the 1997 road bonds and the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority Plan," she said.

"We are in the process of finalizing our requested budget for the next fiscal year," Olivares said in an emailed response to questions. " We are currently estimating $3.5 to $4.0 million of savings."

Pima's Transportation Department has about 270 employees, and will have 234 after the layoffs take place, she said.

The cuts are "prudent ... (but) this is not going to solve our transportation problems," said Supervisor Sharon Bronson.

It is "vital for the county to retain key functions ... to monitor the out-sourced activities through the use of minimal staff" said the January 4 memo, signed by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and Carmine DeBonis, the deputy county administrator for public works.

The memo said that the "1997 Highway User Revenue Bond Program and 2006 Regional Transportation Authority have been highly successful.... With the winding down of this large capital effort, the Pima County Transportation Department restructured in July 2018, to better address deferred maintenance and operational network management."

Huckelberry and other county officials did not tell the county supervisors that employees were being notified they were to be laid off Wednesday. County officials did not publicly release information about the layoffs until after TucsonSentinel.com questioned them.

Supervisor Ally Miller did not respond to a request for comment from TucsonSentinel.com, but later posted a statement on Facebook after this report was published.

"Apparently county administration didn't feel the need to inform me that layoffs were happening," the Republican wrote. "I was informed today and had to confirm this was true."

Miller said that the layoffs were "due to mismanagement" by Huckelberry, with whom she's repeatedly clashed. "The current status of Pima County's finances was predictable and wholly avoidable."

"It is extremely unfortunate the problem of excess headcount ... wasn't addressed long before it became necessary to take action that results in disruptive employee layoffs," Miller said. ""I have proposed reducing the headcount in the Department of Transportation for years because the majority of the pavement preservation work was outsourced."

Miller said she pushed for a "hiring freeze as well as moving employees to other jobs" last year. Pima's Transportation Department eliminated 16 vacant positions after a July 2018 reorganization, Olivares said.

The 2018 failure of a road repair-focused bond followed the overwhelming rejection of a broader 2015 bond package that included a road component. Miller opposed the passage of both measures.

Under Huckelberry's plan, the department will now shift "additional project costs directly to projects through the use of contractors and consultants in lieu of carrying non-project eligible personnel and associated costs" in the department's operational fund, the county "Layoff Plan" document said.

The county will keep a "skeletal crew" to interpret surveys, keep one position to review testing of materials while cutting bridge inspection and testing staff, and cut project management and construction administration staff.

The money freed up after the layoffs will "not even come close to the billion dollars we need," said Bronson, a Democrat. "It's unfortunate that we have to lay off staff; this isn't even beginning to address this transportation deficit."

"These are all good people and we want them all to land on their feet," Olivares said. "Our county workforce team from the One-Stop Career Center will be assisting the affected employees with job searching and other available employment resources."

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